We create the future, it doesn’t just happen to us

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We create the future, it doesn’t just happen to us

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By Dr. Cobus Oosthuizen, Dean at Milpark Business School

As the pace of technological innovation accelerates and the possibilities of what we can achieve expand exponentially, it is tempting to sit back and marvel, to wonder what the future will bring. However, to do that is a serious risk. The future should not be imposed on us, but created by us!

The term enveloping describes the way factories are designed around the robots operating within them. In a similar fashion, we are starting to adjust our lives according to the technology we use, instead of the other way around.

I believe we should remember to place ourselves as humans – complete with our uniqueness and our emotions – at the centre of our lives, with machines to support us.

It is time for us to begin debating the shape of a preferred future; a human-centric future. Klaus Schwab, an early thinker in studies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, also warns that we should not lose our humanity, as we go forward.

GPS navigation technology, now such an integral part of our lives, augments our ability to find our way, but at the same time we become less aware of landmarks on our routes, which makes us more reliant on the technology. The next step is that the tech starts prescribing our routes. There is already some reaction to the way tech dictates to us in such ways.

Make no mistake, I’m a big fan of tech. If it can improve my life, I support it. But one needs to be cautious about the reliance thereon. We should also perhaps interrogate the motivation behind certain so-called technological advances. Do they necessarily improve our lives, or are they underpinned by a profit incentive?

I don’t believe that we are just captives, and that progress just happens to us serendipitously. We are part of that progress.

Smartphones are a case in point. They have been adopted and endorsed by our society as a universally useful innovation. But with other, newer and emerging technologies, the test should be that if a so-called innovation does not serve us, it should be questioned.

Is it serving us, or are we serving it?

Whether it be robotics, AI, the Internet of Things or another technology, new innovations raises ethical questions. In navigating these questions, I believe each of us needs to ask the simple question: What future do we want?

Progress is fantastic. It may help us eliminate poverty and inequality, provide access to water and create employment. However, this can only happen if we put the human species, and our needs, at the centre.

If we do nothing, if we’re just receptive, we might end up with a future that nobody wants. If we remain in thrall to technology for its own sake, we risk painting ourselves out of the picture.

Would you be prepared to live plugged in to a superintelligent entity that integrates everything and augments our intelligence, but that knows our every move, our every thought?

With development of cortical modem technology, this vision is coming closer to reality. We need to consider its implications and decide how we want that scenario to play out.

Tech progress, especially automation, has implications for employment. This is likely to become a fundamental issue of our age. Tech can enable many things, it can enable a life of ease, but also precipitate labour substitution, unemployment and social unrest.

Which way things will go depends on us. Decisions on how tech will be employed across our society should not be abrogated to a small elite of technologists and social engineers.

There may be an emerging need for technological advocacy, where we have to stand up, rally and campaign for the future that we want, or against policies that might harm us.

Already, we are dealing with the unintended fall-out from past technological innovations – fossil fuels, for instance. At one time, this technology seemed a panacea for humanity. But now there are consequences. The same may happen with emerging contemporary technologies such as geoengineering.

The solution to avoiding a technological dystopia, poetically enough, may come from technology itself.

We can employ artificial intelligence to predict its potential impact. Using virtual modelling, digital twinning and similar technology, we can study the possible future consequences of technology itself.

The convergence of biology and technology is a fascinating prospect. But without being sensationalists or Luddites, we are right to feel a certain unease. At this crucial inflexion point in human evolution, we must actively decide how we let our society evolve.

We cannot abdicate decision-making in this space to a tiny elite. As individuals, we are invested in it, and our descendants will be fundamentally integrated with technology. We need to educate ourselves and actively participate in helping to form our future.

13 Aug 2019